Cold or Allergies: How to Tell

Spring allergies can be confused for colds. (Image credit: Getty Images)

Spring is just around the corner, but don't be surprised to see winter weather - and viruses - linger a little longer. So what's behind your stuffy nose: Spring allergies or a cold?

The two miseries share symptoms despite their different causes. But there are clues that can help you find the source of your spring sniffles and choose the right remedy.

"A cold can be accompanied by low-grade fever, sore throat and a cough, whereas allergies usually don't have those things," said Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. "You might have a little bit of sore throat with allergies, but it's mostly runny nose and red, itchy eyes."

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The viruses that cause colds can also cause body aches and fatigue, symptoms you will not have from allergic reactions.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases gives this table as guidance:

Symptom Cold Allergy
Cough Usually Sometimes
General aches and pains Sometimes Never
Fatigue Sometimes Sometimes
Itchy eyes Rarely Usually
Sneezing Usually Usually
Sore throat Usually Sometimes
Runny nose Usually Usually
Stuffy nose Usually Usually
Fever Rarely Never

If you have a cold, you might find relief in over-the-counter decongestants and pain relievers, Schaffner said. And don't forget to drink plenty of fluids and get take it easy, too.

If you have allergies, on the other hand, you might want to try an over-the-counter antihistamine. And if you know the allergy trigger, try to steer clear.

Whatever you do, don't take antibiotics.

"Antibiotics work against bacteria, and bacteria don't cause colds or allergies," Schaffner said. "And the more we use them, the more resistant the bacteria are going to be so next time we really need antibiotics, they might not work."